Written by Recto Mercene
07 April 2010
THE European Commission’s (EC) move to impose an operating ban on all air carriers registered in the Philippines has sparked much soul-searching among local aviation officials, not to mention a discreet blame game on what caused the ban.
The unprecedented move had caught officials of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) by surprise, because the country has practically complied with all the requirements imposed by the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program (Usoap) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao). Usoap conducted its CAAP audit for 10 days in October 2009.
It has given the CAAP six months to comply with their negative findings.
What has apparently been overlooked, according to sources, was the CAAP’s having allowed Zest Air, a local company, to operate three MA60 turbo-prop airplanes.
These “regional” airplanes are made by the Xian Aircraft Co. of China Aviation Industry Corp.
The ICAO has told the CAAP that it would recognize aircraft operating in the Philippines only if their flights were certified by the United States, Canada or the European Union.
How the MA60 was certified has been a source of finger-pointing within the CAAP.
The latter had accused officials of the now defunct Air Transportation Office of registering the MA60 while the aviation body was in transition—at the time the passage of Republic Act 9497 was being hammered out to eventually create the CAAP.
In an apparent move to eventually phase out the MA60, Director General Alfonso Cusi has recently ordered that all airline companies which had not been certified by the aviation body in compliance with the Civil Air Regulations (CAR) would no longer be allowed to fly starting December 2010.
“Republic Act 9497 creating the CAAP had ruled that all airlines must comply with the CAR,” he said.
Among the hurdles that these air carriers must overcome in order to continue flying are: possession of an airworthiness certification; qualification of all of pilots; and the proper facilities such as repair shops, training programs and servicing facilities.
Sources said Zest Air has yet to show the CAAP that it meets all the requirements under the CAR—the country’s aviation industry’s bible—before it could hope to continue operating locally.
It will be recalled that last year, Zest Air figured in three air mishaps at Caticlan Airport involving MA60 airplanes.
Perhaps, according to aviation sources, the December 2010 deadline for minor aircraft operators using aircraft that did not pass those countries that the ICAO officially recognized is too far a deadline, meaning, it would not compel immediate compliance.
The same airport sources said that the Philippines might be able to regain its Category 1 status if the CAAP would put its foot down and immediately stop allowing the MA60 to fly the Philippine skies.
“In the first place, the Icao representatives will never certify the MA60,” one airport source said, adding that the China-made airplanes have yet to establish a consistent record of safety and reliability.
Two dominant players
The EU’s blacklisting of the Philippines came at a time when the world is witnessing the battle for air supremacy by two dominant players in the aircraft manufacturing industry—Boeing and Airbus.
Boeing is the US’s premier aircraft manufacturer, one of only a few key industries that the Americans could truly be said to have a grip on. This grip is slowly being loosened by Airbus, the only key rival in Europe.
It is, thus, not a coincidence that the American-based Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was the first to downgrade the CAAP to Category 2 status, while the EU followed with its own blacklist of the Philippines.
It is curious to note that even if blacklisted in the EU, no Philippine air carrier actually flies to Europe at the moment. Still, Philippine officials said the ban could impact on Manila’s tourism prospects.
At the same time, the EU has not discouraged its citizens from coming over either as tourists or businessmen, and using local aircraft to take them from one place to another.
As this developed, Cusi has ordered the immediate hiring of 47 qualified technical personnel for the Flight Standards Inspectorate Service—the one other hurdle for international certification.
He said that the standardization of the new corporation is meant to ensure that the aviation body would be on a par with international safety standards.
“The task is daunting but I am confident we will surpass the challenges that the CAAP is now facing,” Cusi stressed.
The only airline registered and flew in and out of EU was flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL), but it hasn’t flown to the continent since 1999.
Despite the unfortunate inclusion of PAL and all other local carriers in the European Commission’s blacklist—a direct consequence of the downgrade of the Philippine government’s aviation safety rating—PAL has assured the riding public that safety remains the bedrock of its operations. It has always been the flag carrier’s policy to ensure that its passengers fly with the full assurance of safety and comfort.
PAL lamented that the EC decision came about notwithstanding PAL’s safety record, as borne out by its compliance with internationally accepted safety standards, including the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) and audits by major foreign aviation regulatory authorities. For four consecutive years since 2006, PAL has been the only IOSA-certified Philippine carrier.
PAL welcomes EC visit
Two recent events led to the inclusion of Philippine carriers in the EC ban, namely: 1) the US FAA’s decision in January 2008 to downgrade the Philippines’ safety rating to Category 2; and 2) the “significant safety concern” alert issued by the ICAO in November 2009 against Philippine aviation safety regulators.
Despite the Philippines’ Category 2 rating, it must be noted that the US FAA continues to allow PAL to operate up to 33 regular weekly flights from the Philippines to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, Las Vegas and Guam. PAL said it safely flies thousands of passengers, including US citizens, across the Pacific Ocean on a regular and reliable basis in compliance with stringent US safety regulations.
PAL welcomed the EC air safety committee’s decision to visit the Philippines so that, besides Philippine aviation regulators, it can also inspect and audit local carriers.
The airline said it is prepared for such audit and is confident that EC inspectors will find PAL as a world-class carrier of uncompromising professionalism and efficiency.
PAL is also ready to lend a hand to the CAAP, especially to its new director general, Cusi, as the agency strives to professionalize its ranks and regain its international safety rating.
Since 2006, PAL has been complying with the IOSA program, which is ISO 9001:2000 certified. It is a rigorous audit focusing on the entire operational management and control systems of an airline in promoting safety, based on internationally recognized standards and supported by a strict quality assurance process.
These IOSA standards are derived from relevant Icao guidelines, in particular, Annexes 1, 6 and 8, as well as from the regulations of the US FAA and the Joint Aviation Authorities of Europe, as well as industry best practices.
Moreover, regular maintenance of the PAL fleet is undertaken by Lufthansa Technik Philippines, a subsidiary of Lufthansa Technik AG of Germany, the world’s leading provider of maintenance, repair and overhaul services for commercial aircraft, engines and components.
Low-cost carrier Airphil Express continued to assure its passengers and the riding public that flying by air is still one of the safest modes of transportation in the Philippines.
Airphil Express issued the statement amid the recent decision by the EC to ban all Philippine carriers from flying to the European Union.
“While no Philippine carrier currently flies to any point in Europe, we wish to assure the riding public that our planes are well-maintained and adhere to a strict maintenance policy that puts a premium on passenger comfort and safety,” said Airphil Express president David Lim.